The death of Asiong Salonga
It is not the Polk Street house, scene of a thousand press conferences, where cameramen are warned not to shoot the parade of whiskeys and spirits lining one wall by the living room door. The house is a new house, or is new for Joseph Estrada, who moved into the 5,000-square-meter Mangga St. lot at 9 in the morning of May 9, 2012, a little more than a few days before the beginning of the required one-year residency for local election candidates.
The mansion sits in the middle of the Sta. Mesa slums, along a narrow lane crowded with one-room shanties lit by single yellow bulbs. The floors are carpeted in campaign posters. Scraps of pink curtain hang limp from board windows. The roofs are tin. The walls are patched wood. Small girls perch from the doorways in little more than faded panties.
This is the Manila that Joseph Estrada saw every morning for a year, or at least every morning he slept in the house that used to be the campaign headquarters of President Ramon Magsaysay—“Magsaysay was also a man of the masses so I find that inspiring.”
Estrada has just wrapped up an interview, telling Susan Enriquez of GMA7 that he has forgiven his opponent Alfredo Lim, and that he is willing to meet with Manila’s Dirty Harry for as long as Lim does the inviting.
Lim himself was at the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) at 11 that night, watching the numbers trickle in from precincts across Manila. He stayed a short 30 minutes, before getting up to say he was leaving to have dinner, but that he would be back—a line reminiscent of the notorious meal Lim had during the Manila Hostage Crisis in 2010 that left the erstwhile mayor with charges of neglect of duty.
Lim never returned to the PSC in the 12 hours it took the Commission on Elections to proclaim a new mayor.
Estrada knows none of this when he leaves his home on the night of May 13. There are cameras and bright led lights surrounding him as he walks down the stairs, but the lights shut off and the lenses lower the moment he shakes a cigarette out of a pack. His bodyguards shift around him, broad backs forming a phalanx around the former president.
There are no instructions necessary, no shoving of cameramen. When Estrada smokes, the world stops rolling.
It is not the first time this has happened. It is the non-event of every sortie, odd for a man who claims to be so well-loved that his womanizing and boozing affect his image not a whit. And yet here he is, Tondo’s King, the celluloid gunslinger who killed in cold blood, the biggest, baddest gangster on a showdown with Dirty Harry, afraid or unwilling to be caught indulging in a vice even the President of the Republic, son of a saint, does not deny.
Perhaps this means something, a concession to some underlying national conservatism. What is clear is that this man is not the same unapologetic action star who whirled into the presidency with the brass to tell a shocked bourgeoisie to take him as he is because he is here to stay. He is older and slower, his laughter not as quick, his impatience more obvious, the slurs more pronounced at each speech. He will choose to let vice mayoral candidate Isko Moreno fire most of the personal attacks, he might allow for a tolerant smile or an acknowledging nod as the crowd howls at Moreno's antics. He does not deny reporters who thrust telephones at him patched live to national broadcast studios, but he will glare in annoyance in the direction or the journalist who asks the questions he believes he has answered enough. He appears on stage at caucuses and stoops to shake hands with the madding crowd, and when he slips and falls into the melee, he is hauled back by the men who make it their business to keep safe the candidate whose legend may be more sure-footed than the man.
Estrada by default
This is a man who may or may not have settled into his role as the elder statesman, who may or may not have begun listening to the same elite he once condemned, certainly he is a man who has written his personal narrative in a fashion that demands a conclusion no less than the rise of the evening star over a golden Manila.
"You may not know,” said Lim, “that this Asiong Salonga was convicted and jailed for illegal possession of firearms, for robbery with homicide, for so many other crimes. This was his record until his enemies killed him over their division of loot. This is the true Asiong Salonga.”
The true Asiong Salonga does not rise to the bait, unlike Lim and his near desperate defense of Dirty Harry. Asiong Salonga the gangster is dead and died long ago, says Estrada. He is Asiong Salonga only in so far as Salonga belongs to Manila. Beyond his birth in a Tondo hospital 76 years ago, Salonga is Estrada’s only claim to the city under the neon lights. He says he owes Manila his first big break as an actor, that it was in the city's streets that he first made his name as Asiong Salonga, and that he was loved and appreciated as Asiong Salonga by the same masses he promises to serve.
It may be that the battle for Manila is a showdown of legends, but it is the more practical Estrada who was first on the draw, ripping apart Dirty Harry’s mythology as Manila’s tough cop by pointing to the swarm of criminals thriving in the city’s underbelly. He has recited study after study proving the city’s decline under Lim, adding his own unimpeachable record as the mayor of San Juan’s success.
Estrada’s Manila is more real than Lim’s city of subsidized education and free hospitalization. His is a city that lives by the edge of a knife, where the hungry will kill and blood drains into sewage.
This is not an election where the celebrity of Joseph Estrada won the national capital. Manila does not have the luxury of voting on the basis of a 1950’s box office hit, not when there are streets in Ermita where virgins are sold at midnight. The people may believe the image, they may cheer for the legend, but they will talk about Estrada’s success as a local mayor and say “maybe he can do it here too.”
In San Andres Bukid, there is a street called Estrada, where Lim’s supporters argue that Estrada has done nothing for Manila as president, and Estrada loyalists claim he has done enough for San Juan. The talk is of hospitals, of education, of criminality and hunger and near desperation.
This is a public that voted for Estrada by default. If Lim’s story no longer makes sense, perhaps Estrada’s will.
Joseph Estrada calls the mayoralty of Manila his last gift to the Filipino people. Perhaps it is true, but it is also his last chance, for himself and the legacy of one Joseph Ejercito Estrada, politician. In the story he tells, he is a victim of circumstances, abused by the elite, discriminated by class, a self-made man who lost his presidency but won the people. The mythology is not enough to vindicate him, not with a mere 30,000 votes in his favor. Manila may be his public redemption, but it is a narrative that will not end with his proclamation. It ends in 2016, when he passes the promised golden city into the hands of Isko Moreno.
Until then, he has a legacy to build and a legend to destroy. There is no room for a gangster in a city howling for a leader. For Joseph Estrada to lead, Asiong Salonga must die. - Rappler.com